'It's an Italian Job': Rome Sending 500 Troops to Niger, but Niger 'Was Not Informed'

Earlier this year, Italian Parliament approved the deployment of soldiers in Niger to help tackle human trafficking in the Sahel. However, Niger has now reportedly claimed it was never consulted on the deployment, with some officials saying they fully oppose the plan.

Earlier in January, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni traveled to Niger to meet officials, including President Mahamadou Issoufou and Foreign Affairs Minister Ibrahim Yacouba, for the inauguration of the first Italian embassy in the country, in its capital Niamey.

Ahead of his trip, Gentiloni said: "We are going to Niger following a request from the local government received in early December concerning an Italian contribution to do what we normally do in these countries, such as Libya. That is, reinforce instruments of territorial and border control and reinforce local police forces."

A few weeks later, Italy agreed to send 120 troops, followed by another 350 later this year, in an effort to stem migration and people trafficking.

"This is a training mission in response to a request from Niger, not a combat mission," Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti was quoted by AFP as saying.

However, a few days later, Radio France Internationale quoted anonymous Nigerien officials as saying they were not aware of such plans.

"We were not consulted or informed.We were surprised," a source said.

Another government source added Niamey would not accept the Italian force. "We told the Italians through our foreign minister that we do not agree."

Although the sources confirmed that there is an existing dialogue with Italy on security and technical coordination between the two countries, they added that Niger is already liaising with "the American and the French" on security, border control and assistance to local police.

Niger is part of the so-called G5—also including Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania—that have set up a joint multinational force to combat terrorism in the area.

It is not clear when and whether Italy will send its troops, although local media say the first contingent is expected to travel to the African country in the first months of 2018.

The Italian embassy in London has not responded to a request for a comment.

"These troops were promised since December 2017, if the Nigerien government was aware of the deployment, maybe it did not have the stomach to object," security analyst and counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Newsweek.

"If the Nigerien government is not in accord, it constitutes a breach of their sovereign space."

Italy and Niger
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou (L) shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni at the end of a joint press conference following their meeting on March 31, 2017 at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome. TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Migration flow

Some analysts believe that the intervention in Niger is a tactical way for Italy to reduce the influx of migrants and avoiding the deployment of troops to southern Libya.

Niger is one of the main transit countries for thousands of migrants and asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan African who travel to Europe. At least 600,000 migrants have reached Italy since 2014.

"This is an 'Italian job', for the sole aim is to protect the Italian interests in securing its borders against the influx of migrants from Africa who use the main Agadir route in Niger," Otto told Newsweek.

The same situation applies to Libya within Tripoli and Misrata, where Italian troops are visible in strategic points.

Thousands have died during the perilous journey across the desert or at sea. Many more have fallen victims to human smugglers and are held against their will in detention centers in Libya, the main getaway for people to reach Europe.

Rights group Amnesty International has accused Italy and other European countries of being complicit in abuses against migrants in Libya.

Last February, the UN-backed government in Libya and Italy reached an agreement to curb the number of people crossing the Mediterranean and combat people smuggling. As per the accord, Italy and the EU committed to providing funds and training to the Libyan Coast Guard to stop boats reaching Italian shores.

At the time, the U.N. and human rights groups warned the agreement would put in danger thousands of migrants who would be kept in "inhumane conditions" at illegal detention centers in Libya.

A few months later, the Italian government issued a Code of Conduct for NGOs, stipulating that rescue ships operated by humanitarian organizations cannot enter Libyan waters to pick up migrants and help them reach Italy. Furthermore, boats will have to transport armed police officers in an effort to catch human smugglers.

"The solution to the migration crisis that is influencing Italian geopolitics is to get Libya back on its toes, under a Libya-controlled stable leadership," Otto said.

"The UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli does not have the blessing of the tribal clans and ordinary Libyans because of its imperialist structure.

"This is the moment for the Italian government to support election in Libya that can stabilize the country. If Libya is stable, the deployment to Niger will not be a priority," he concluded.